In promoting a new web series filmed in Jersey City, Secaucus resident Reyhan Lalaoui said she has a number of goals, not the least of which is dispelling the myth that her generation – known as Generation Z – accepts as fact everything they hear or see on the internet.
“If anything the opposite is true,” she said. “We pay more attention than most people do.”
Inspired by a quote by Nobel-Prize winning author Toni Morrison, Lalaoui set out to create the kind of programming she wanted to watch.
Her web shows reflect the needs of inner city kids. While she lives in Secaucus, she grew up in Jersey City, and knows the issues facing inner city kids.
“We don’t have easy access to quality mental health care,” she said. “Many of us are uninsured.”
There’s also the challenge of getting adults to listen to their concerns.
“It’s not always as simple as ‘Ask a trusted adult for help,'” she said. “When you add the nuances of culture and religion into the mix, you’ll start to see the spark of a conversation that desperately needs to be had.”
A quick study
Lalaoui graduated from high school at age 13, became the youngest valedictorian at Hudson County Community College at 16, and is a senior and honors student at Saint Peter’s University at age 18.
She wrote and produced the first two episodes of a web series portraying the unique mental health challenges of inner city youth, set and filmed in Jersey City.
“Suicide Spenders” is the first series produced by her company, County Films. Two episodes are complete with outlines for another 10.
The first two episodes will premiere on April 5 at 7 p.m. in St. Peter University’s Pope Lecture Hall at 115 Glenwood Ave. in Jersey City.
“I wanted to set the story in the same location I sourced my talent from,” Lalaoui said. “I did this because I did not see characters like myself portrayed in media. So I decided to make it happen and show people who live and work the way I do, and go out into the world. I wanted something authentic.”
And the plot thickens
The story follows six teens as they deal with issues that include depression and anxiety. Cast members bring a high level of talent and maturity to their roles as a group of diverse, struggling teens who find themselves thrown together at a high school support group. All hail from Hudson County high schools including High Tech, County Prep, Hoboken High School, and McNair Academic High School.
“The typical face of mental health challenges in modern media doesn’t resemble our cast,” Lalaoui said. Not only did she write, produce, and edit the series, she also plays the role of Anya, a Muslim Moroccan-American who struggles with depression and crippling anxiety.
One episode revolves around the group forming a suicide pack.
The half-hearted suicide pact demands that they live life on the edge for one week; for example, stealing cash from the fictional Jersey City High.
Their experiences and moral ambiguity bring the group together and refocus their plans for the future.
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth in this country. It’s taking causalities every day, and yet the media still romanticizes it.” — Reyhan Lalaoui
“This is meant to be satirical in proposing an outrageous solution,” Lalaoui said. “Not every story is going to show people making the right decisions. The struggles in ‘Suicide Spenders’ speak uniquely to Generation Z. I’m being honest about us. Sometimes, that truth is uncomfortably raw and controversial.”
But it also has the potential to bring people together.
Lalaoui believes the subject of teenage mental health has been misrepresented by entertainment in the past. She hopes her series is on the leading edge of an underserved niche in media, one driven by a sophisticated market of savvy young consumers hungry for authentic stories.
“This is not an aesthetically-pleasing high school drama,” she said. “Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth in this country. It’s taking causalities every day, and yet the media still romanticizes it. I’m working hard to change that.”
She said society has formed judgments about her generation that may not be true.
“Because we grew up in such an influx of information, people seem to think we accept any media that comes our way,” she said. “But we are critical consumers, and we look for truth.”
By previewing the two episodes Lalaoui hopes to raise money to produce the rest. “We would like to do a national drop,” she said. “We’ve started a Kickstarter to raise money.”
Lalaoui wants to pitch to outlets like Netflix and Hulu.
To view the “Suicide Spenders” series trailer, learn about the cast, and get the link to the Kickstarter campaign, visit CountyFilms.com.
For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org